[The American Years]

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where the unlucky number is… 4. Also, 42, but mostly 4.
There are two prevalent ways to pronounce 4 in Japanese. (Numbers and counting are hard in Japanese. A whole topic for a later date, I think.) Four is typically pronounced either ‘Yon’ or ‘Shi’. They’re pretty interchangeable, but certain pronunciations must be used in certain circumstances.

By sad coincidence, ‘Shi’ is also the pronunciation of the kanji symbol for death. So 4 is a harbinger of doom. If you buy a set of dishes or chopsticks there will rarely be a set of 4. Tea sets will have 2 or 5 cups, never 4. If there are parking lots with numbered spaces 1-100, 4 and 42 will be missing. 42 can be pronounced Shi-ni, which is pretty close to “Dead Person”. A western hotel we stayed at in Tokyo had floors 4 and 13 missing, I guess as a nod to the superstitions of their western clientele.

Veronica has the unluckiest birthday in Japan, 4/4. And I wonder about double-dating. Is it bad luck to travel as a party of 4?

A copyrighted feature of this blog…
Bottled green tea. Yes, green tea is a thing in Japan. Before it was ever a trend that made it to you grocer’s shelves (maybe a couple of thousand years before), the Japanese have been enjoying it. For all the trend in the US beverage market, they still don’t have the bottled green tea.

Simple, unsweetened, calorie free and delicious. It is amazingly refreshing. When it’s hot outside (as octopus balls, for example) nothing tastes better to me. It’s like standing under a waterfall.

It's unlikely this will ever make it to the states. No sugar, no 'extreme' image, made of... leaves. Boring! Get some High Fructose Corn Syrup in there, get some X-Games guys to drink it, and we're in business.

People talk about the weight loss properties of tea, especially green tea. But I think that they have it backwards. If you drink tea, your body is tricked into thinking it’s not starving. That’s why tea is an ancient drink – it made hunger bearable, and back when food supplies were dependent on luck and weather, I bet it came in handy.

So you can lose weight by drinking green tea, but only if you were going to lose weight anyway. Tea just makes it more comfortable. (I should submit that to the ad people at Lipton. Replace “Take the Nestea Plunge” with “It Makes Starvation Bearable.”)

Another copyrighted feature of this blog:
JAPANESE IS HARD TO LEARN (so let’s not even try)
Japanese doesn’t put accents on syllables the way we do in English. Theirs is a more musical difference. Formally, each word of two or more syllables either goes up or down, and it seems like most go up. By up and down, I mean that the word starts at ‘do’ on the scale and finishes at ‘fa’ or maybe ‘so’. Or the other way round. (This is all per my Japanese instructor. Honestly in normal speech I can't really hear it. But our Japanese class sounds like we're rehearsing the worst musical ever.)

An example. If you say Ah-meh, going down, it means rain. If you say A-me going up, it means candy. However, if it’s raining candy, you say “subarashii” (magnificent) and turn your umbrella upside down.

Similarly, byoh-een pronounced one way is beauty parlor. The other way is hospital. Both are good places for expert emergency repair, I guess.


Some scans of a recent class work by Veronica. Drawings of her family members.





Hmm. One of these things is not like the others…This is a case study for a family therapist.

I asked her about it. Is Veronica happy or sad? “Happy”. Describe Mommy. “Happy.” Daddy? “Happy.” What about Zane? “Grumpy! Because he’s always grumpy at me.”

She said it with a smile on her face, but it’s true. He is pretty mean to her. More than normal sibling rivalry? Probably not. But I still feel for her. Anything he learns at school or anything he can do well he lords over her.

For the most part, she takes it in stride, and is pretty confident about her skills. She even can be happy for him sometimes, complimenting him on what he does. But a lot of time Zane succeeds in his trying to make her feel bad. Really, he can be a stinker.

This says more about him than about her, that he has to put his sister down in order to feel worthwhile. I guess we’d better start acting like parents and do something. Is this where I pull out the “I’ll give you something to cry about” or the “Don’t make me turn this car around?” Really those are the only parenting phrases I know.


Just to prove there is some joy in mudville, here's a video of us being happy.


Adversity is the foundation of virtue. Source: Japanese Proverb

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where it's considered good luck if a bird poops on you. What a country!


No time for a post of any true merit this week. The delicate balance between doing things and having time to write about them tilted against my blogging this weekend. We went to Tokyo on the Shinkansen! (Bullet train.) The fastest shinkansen (which we took because why go unless you go all the way) travels at around 240 km/hour. That's around 145mph. That's fast. It was great. That crazy Tokyo nightlife! (We were in bed by 8:30, exhausted.) We had a great time, and you'll hear about it at some point.


Things we will miss about Japan, episode 2:

Three little letters. NHK. It's the PBS of Japan, and like all things in Japan, it's superior. Or it's at least different enough to be great. The kids programming is awesome. It is of course based on PBS kids programming, so it's just as charming and clever as Sesame Street or Electric Company. However it's made in Japan, so it's smaller and more efficient.

We saw a crawl on CNN that Youtube.com had removed a bunch of Japanese videos, and we were crestfallen that our one link to NHK when we return to the US was drying up.

Never fear. Here's a taste. Be warned that the Algorithm March, and the complementary Algorithm Exercises (available separately), are completely addictive. There are several incarnations shown on NHK. I posted this one because it has the translation supertitles, along with the Japanese for you.


And here is a neighbor kid and myself giving it a try. No ninjas here, sorry. The more detail oriented of you will notice that I pooch it at the end. I was too busy having fun to be totally algorithmic. More practice!


Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass.

Source: (Japanese Proverb)


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Greeting from Japan, where curry is a beloved dish. Different from Thai or Indian curry, and quite tasty to the western palate. Especially to kids! And the curry restaurant has excellent cost performance. Coco is the name of the predominant chain of curry restaurants, where they allow you to personalize your curry rice. A selection of meats on top, different amounts of rice, and spice levels, from 1 to 10. The menu warns that in order to purchase level 6 spice or above, you must first prove that you can take it, by eating a whole serving of level 5.

I pursued this, only because I figured with a chain restaurant the size of Coco, you would need to have a card to register yourself as a Level-5+-spice-approved customer. That card would be a welcome addition to my wallet, and a great souvenier, suitable for framing. Sadly, there appears to be no National Spicy Curry Registration Program. After finishing my Level 5, there was no fanfare or ceremony. And the next time through, I ordered Level 6 and the waiter didn't blink.

In case you're wondering, Level 6 is the point for me where it begins to be work to eat it. It's fine, but it borders on not being enjoyable. So since I forsee there's no T-shirt or badge of honor or placque on the wall when I reach Level 10, I have gone back down to a more comfortable spice level. For Kathleen, the comfortable level is Level 0.


Now that we are nearing the end of our stay here (less than 5 months left, don't tell Kathleen), it's time to establish a new and copyrighted feature of this blog. I call it:

Things I'll Miss About Japan

(I need some theme music. Can you do that in a blog? I'll get the staff to work on it.)

First off the top: Chu Hi. I will miss Chu Hi. Everyone who knows about Chu Hi, knows what I'm talking about, and why. For the rest of you, Chu Hi is a mixed beverage with Sho Chu as the alcohol. Sho Chu has the reputation as the poor-man's sake. I think it's Korean in origin. It's a rice or potato based spirit, with about 30% alcohol I think. To make it more drinkable, it's often mixed with fruit juice and soda water to make a Chu-Hi. (Or "Shochu Highball".) The fruit juice is usually citrus. Grapefruit and lemon are the most popular. At a high class bar, they will give you a grapefruit half for you to squeeze your own fresh juice into the drink. At lower class places a syrup is used.

Recently, maybe in the last 10 years, it has become popular as a canned beverage. The good people at Kirin have done wonders with it, though they have for the moment decided not to export it to the US. Plenty of flavors, including pineaple, plum, and Japanese pear.

It's a bit like the Japanese wine cooler, except for one thing: The base alcohol, Sho Chu, is not for kids. The canned Chu Hi product is around 6% alcohol, and tastes like fruity bubbles. A colleague of mine here on business trip was out with friends and called someone after a few Chu Hi to report, "I can't feel my face."

That concludes the first installment of Things I'll Miss About Japan. (Bookend with Exit Music bumper here.) (Fade to black.) (Cue audience applause.)

(Not everything in this ongoing series will be about alcohol. I promise. I really don't drink that much over here. I'm trying to keep my girlish figure.)


I'm feeling sporty: How about another new and copyrighted feature! This one is more educational. (I forsee turning it into a useful series of books for the language learner.) The working title is:

Japanese Is Too Hard To Learn!
(So Let's Not Even Try!)

Lesson 1:
There's a word for cute or darling: kawai. Pronounced almost like the Hawaiian island. Easy to remember, right?

Well, be careful, because there's another word. It means scary or frightening. Pronounced: kowai.

It's easy to mispronounce both words sound to sound like "kuh-wai". I'm pronouncing 'kuh' to rhyme with 'duh', and it is very fitting.

I never realized it before, but we as English speakers blur vowel sounds all the time and don't know it. It's how we get all the lovely and different accents in English. It's how you know when someone speaks with a New York accent that they are rude overly biased towards their city, and how when a Kentuckian speaks you know right away he is new to the marvels of indoor plumbing. Very convenient for the listener.

In Japanese, bluring the vowel sounds gets you in big trouble. Be very careful telling the mother of the newborn that the new baby is very cute. You might be calling it scary.

Want another? Think you're ready to progress?

Kirei ('Key-Ray') = beautiful. Kirai ('Key-Rye') = detested or hated.

Gives the old phrase "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful," a new twist. I don't use that phrase all that often. My beauty is way down on the list of reasons I'm hated.

OK, let's close up the new features of the blog and get to what people really want. Pictures.


Meiji Mura is an outdoor museum of architechture about an hour outside of Nagoya. When Japan was getting all modern, it was decreed that the primary architectural themes to be embraced would be "Gray" and "Square". To their credit however, someone noticed the trend, and decided to find a way to save important or interesting buildings, and this park was the result. Each building was dismantled, transported, and remantled (?) in this park. It has old street cars from Kyoto, a working steam engine line, the first Christian churches built after the ban on Christianity was lifted, etc. The highlight is the lobby and front exterior fountain from the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, which was a Frank Lloyd Wright work. Enjoy.

What this prison cell needs some pizazz!

Veronica checks us in.


If neither animal nor vegetable you be, then mineral you are.

Source: (Japanese Proverb)


Friday, October 06, 2006

Greetings from Japan, were one can buy a “Noodles In a Bun” sandwich from any convenience store. They are yakisoba noodles, maybe the junk food of Japanese noodle dishes. They are available at festivals and baseball games, etc. However, noodles are not exactly finger food. The solution? Noodles on a bun. Delicious!

And I even found the low-carb gluten free version.

A caveat before we continue. There are people in the readership of this blog who know a lot more about Japan than I do. I am sure that I am getting things wrong. It's fun for me to decide why things are the way they are here. But it's all just wild guesses on my part. Scientific wild guesses, maybe. I look at the data, put it together and come up with what seems like the obvious explanation to me. But I do allow room for correction by more experienced travelers. Please chime in if you want, all of you.

OK, that's done. Now back to more of "Professor Supersmarty Explains Japan"

Today’s topic: Days of the week. Japan’s days of the week are just like ours, yet completely different.

Below is a scan from my day calendar:

There are two sets of symbols for each day. The single kanji right next to the number, and the double kanji to the right of the line. (Side note. The day marked in green is a Sunday. Saturday is not marked as a day off.... Explains a lot.)

Let’s start with the easy ones. The days of the week are represented by simple elements. The first two are just like ours.
Sunday = Sun (Nichi yohbi)
Monday = Moon (Getsu Yohbi)
Tuesday = Fire
Wednesday = Water
Thursday = Wood
Friday = Metal
Saturday = Earth.

Simple. And with simple Kanji. But we’re not done. Most Japanese calendars have Monday as the first day of the week, which actually makes sense. The weekend then is shown at the end of the week. In your week-at-a-glance, the Saturday and Sunday are together. It’s all pretty sensible.

But we’re still not done.
The kanji pairs on the right of the line repeat in a 6-day cycle of days. They appear on almost every Japanese calendar. It's from a Buddhism, and it's called Rokuyo ('roku' means six, and 'yo' means the same as it does in American slang: "Salutations! Please acknowledge my presence as I acknowledge yours!" or something like that and I believe it's also from a Buddhist tradition.)

I asked a Japanese colleague here to explain Rokuyo for me. Below is the explanation as my colleague wrote it. Pretty interesting.
+++ + + + +++
How are you doing? Here's the things that I found out about Rokuyo (senshou, tomobiki, sakimake, butsumetsu, taian, sekiguchi)

Senshou: First kanji means means before, in advance, ahead. Second one means victory.
So, you rather get things done in the morning not in the afternoon.

Tomobiki. Fist one means friends. Second one is draw, bring, pull.
So you don't want to have a funual on this day. Cause bad things might happen to your friends.

Sakimake. It's the opposite of Senshou. First one means before, in advance, ahead.
Second one means means lose. So you rather get things done in the afternoon.

Ex. I bought a brand new car, Vitz. The day I was going to get my car was . So i went to get my car in the afternoon.

Butsumetsu. First kanji means Budda, God, somebody who are already dead.
Second kanji means perish, fall and ruin.
So it's really bad days like even Budda might perish.
Ex. So nobody wantes to get married on this day. As a matter of fact, if you get married on this day you will get a extra discount for the ceremony for this, cause nobody else wants to get married on this.

Taian. First kanji means big and a lot. Second one means assurance and safety. So it's considered very nice and very nice day. Lots of people want to get married on this day.

Sekiguchi. First one means red and second one means month, date, cover.
When you use knife and fire, you better whach out, otherwise you might have see the blood.

+++ + + + +++
Back to me now. That last description confuses me because the last kanji is for 'mouth'. So it's red mouth, not month. (Except that I have no idea, and might be completely wrong. See caveat, above.)

My colleague is right about Big Assurance day. One of my calendar pages is a ‘year at a glance’, and they don’t put all the 6-day cycle symbols on the page, only Big Assurance day. If you’re planning a big event, you only care about that day.

So here’s the upshot. The Japanese are more superstitious than most of us. It is strange because we think of them as more logical and superior to us Americans, like Vulcans from Star Trek: smarter, less emotional, if maybe a little funny looking.

But here they are, picking up their cars in the afternoon, carefully planning their weddings, etc., because of this 6-day cycle. Maybe these beliefs are decreasing a bit because of the younger generation and their new fangled MTV and robotic toilets and whatnot, but my colleague who wrote above is probably 10 years younger than I am, and clearly abides by it.

I refrain from calling it ‘superstition’ to Japanese people, because that has the nuance that the belief is foolish. I’m not sure what the right word is. I get the feeling that nobody swears by these things, but that they are also not taking any chances.

In Japan you never say "Today must be my lucky day," because your lucky day is the same as everyone elses, and it's already on the calendar.


Like I say here, another weekend, another festival. Last weekend we went to Tsushima, a nearby city. Their autumn festival features centuries old wooden 'floats', which are wheeled about with drummers and flute players inside. The top of the floats feature wooden puppets operated from inside the floats. It's supposed to be fantastic and amazing.

This year, it was wet. The floats were all wrapped in clear plastic and almost none of the puppetry was on display. If we had followed the parade all the way to the shrine, we might have seen more, but we didn't. It was still very nice, and I got to eat some fair food!

Note: the strong faceless man toting our kids in the below mantage is not me (you should be able to tell by the display of upper body strength). Rather it is our friend Damien, here on a business trip.


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Japanese proverb:
Bad and good are intertwined like rope.

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